Review of Peter Carey's 'What Good are The Arts?'
I've been reading a very interesting book by John Carey recently entitled "What good are the Arts' , a reasonably unweighty little philosophical missive that takes up some of the pop-aesthetic debates many of us would have been exposed to as undergraduates: "What is art?" , "Is there a difference between 'low' and 'high art', and "Does art make us better people?" All these philosophical morsels are conveniently arranged into 7 easily digestible chapters, short enough, as Jeff Goldblum puts it in The Big Chill, "to be read during the average crap."
Roughly speaking, Carey recommends a sort of extreme relativism with regards to judging art: Art is so subjective, he opines, and so varied in it's effects on different people that there is no way we can come up with universal judgements on it. We must be content with: "It's art if somebody says it is." and must shrug our shoulders as we lump "Home And Away" in with Shakespeare, as we cannot possibly know what deep emotions the Australian soap may be stirring in the breasts of our fellow human beings. Views, calculated , no doubt to get under the collar of anyone who beleives in muses, eternal verities, or has classical yearnings. To Carey, this will have to do as a basis for criticism.
It is an argument that goes along similar lines as that taken by Bishop Berkeley, in Treatise Concerning the Principles of Knowledge: The world is only perceived by us through our senses, and as such we have no way of knowing if the world I am perceiving is the same as the one you are perceiving, or if there even is an external world at all. Samuel Johnson is reported to have answered Berkeley's challenge by kicking a stone so hard his foot bounced off it with the words "I refute it thus."
Of course Berkeley was not actually suggesting that the world has no external reality, and that we might as well all go jump off the nearest cliff: He was making the academic point that we cannot actually know anything without the evidence of our senses - a viewpoint fundamental to modern science among other things.
And what does this tell us about our attitude to good/bad/high/low art? Well, I would argue, that though we might as well agree with Carey, that ultimately, Home and Away is to be placed on a level with Shakespeare, in that both are works of drama and we cannot say with certainty which is higher and which lower. This does not mean that we need take this view seriously all the time: In other words, if we're being high-minded about it, they are both in the same area code. If we're talking in more everyday terms, we all know Shakespeare is better than Home and Away, and are pretty sure that the feelings the Aussie soap excites are a little cheaper and less enobling than the ones in Shakespeare.
Secondly, the extreme relativistic view makes it difficult to express a view about art that has claims to any external, let alone eternal, truth, according to Carey. We cannot say that Beethoven is 'better' than Lady GaGa, merely that "I like Beethoven more than Lady GaGa." Again, of course, Carey is correct, having reached the point in history where we can easily dispense with any ideas of eternal, intrinsically valuable art, we have to sigh and simply say "Well I like it anyway, and thats good enough for me."
Except that for most of us, it's not good enough. When we say "I like Shakespeare a lot." , what we really mean is not just "I like him. " , we mean "I think there is something about Shakespeare that makes him worthy of my liking." And chances are, if you don't agree with me, I secretly reckon you're missing out. To have an opinion on anything, is to believe that somebody else is hopelessly misguided. Its seems to be just the way we're built.
So where does that leave us? Well in my opinion it leaves us as relativists in our speech, but absolutists in our thoughts. So is there a distinction between High and Low art? Maybe not, but there is art that I think is good, deep, fascinating and full of layers of moving meaning, such as The Wire, and then there is an episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians. And I can see there is a difference - and if you can't, of course I think you are a cretin. For politeness sake and philosophical consistency, I may pretend otherwise, but my thoughts remain much the same as they did in 1989 when I wrote "Metallica Rule: New Kids Suck!" on the wall of my secondary school toilet.
H.L. Mencken once said of people's religious beliefs: "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart." , well the same applies here. We respect that everybody's response to a work of art is as meaningful to him as they are to ourselves, but we don't necessarily agree that his feelings are being had for the right reasons.
Which brings us to the other prong of his argument: That if somebody says something is art, it is. Thus, when Marcel Duchamp plonked his urinal into a gallery with the words 'R. Mutt 1917' writtten on it, he had created a piece of art. We are all familiar with the ensuing debate about what art is, and are probably forced to agree with Carey: If that Urinal can be art, well I guess anything can, and we'd better abandon any ideas about there being some ultimate criteria for what is and isn't.
And yet, again some of us are forced at any rate to say : Ultimately, this is correct, no argument there. But it is possible to create a category of art that I see as so unsuccessful in its transmission of meaning to human beings, that it can be considered to be 'failed art'. Look at it this way: If I am turning the dial on a radio, I can pretty easily distinguish the radio stations from the noise in between them. I would even suppose (though of course I cannot be sure) that 100% of human beings would agree with me about which was which (Except perhaps, Charles Saatchi).
Most of us would rightly think that anybody who tried to argue that the white noise was actually music was merely indulging himself in a little intellectual excercise. He has a point, white noise does contain all possible frequencies, so one could as easily sculpt a Beethoven's Fifth out of it as a Bille Jean, with the right tools. But, all of us prefer our music a little more selective than white noise, for most of us, preferably even more rareified as to contains notes, scales, chords and key signatures.
With visual art, it is to my mind possible to look at a piece of painting/sculpture in the same way. If the canvas was simply a white square entitled "Untitled No 7" - we cannot write it off as 'non-art' according to Carey. We can however, in my opinion, write it off as "Failed Art" in that it could possibly be communicating things to people, but it is plain to see, that it is not attempting to do so, visually it is simply white noise: Something that has not been refined to the point where it could have a meaning.
Further to this I would add the category of "Trick Art" - that is, art which is not merely 'failed art' as mentioned above, but art that is knowingly made by it's creator to slip under the radar of meaning and exploit human being's desire to seem clever and knowledegable in front if other human beings. In other words, the artist makes a creation which quite deliberately avoids meaning anything at all (Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst et al) and presents it in an environment (e.g. A fashionable gallery, Saatchi's living room) in which everybody in the room is scared to admit that they don't understand it.
Carey mentions this phenomenon when he links High Art and Low Art to their respective social classes: If I admit that I have little liking for abstract art beyond using it for wallpapers or duvet covers, I have immediately removed myself from the Upper-Middle-Class. I have indicated that I am small minded and frumpy, and probably read the Daily Mail. Of course in reality, nobody thinks that much of abstract art - beyond "Hmm, blue and green, I guess it's kind of um, tranquil or something.", but any of us with social aspirations are not going to admit so in public, particularly if we make a living as an art critic.
The difference, however, before the Twentieth Century, when Art was divided into High and Low along class lines, the so-called high art did actually have something more complicated and meaningful about it, if only in a technical sense. Mozart was High Art, but still music that a 10 year old can understand, even today. The same cant be said of Stockhausen.
In the present day visual arts, however, the opposite is the case: That which is 'highest' probably has the least meaning (for anybody, cultured or uncultured) and that which is lowest is probably somebody worth sneering at, you know, some god-awful, painter, like painting pictures of stuff, as if anybody was interested in that anymore.
This fact may be connected , Carey points out, to the fact that visual art Art is not reproducible by mechanical means: The other major modern art forms, cinema, literature and recorded music, do not suffer from this phenomenon to anything like the same degree: Of course there are people turning out obscurantist stuff in all of those fields, but they are largely doing so far off most people's radar. In the plastic arts the obscurantist stuff is the mainstream, and the stuff that attempts to mean something is being sold by the yard on the railings of your local park.
This is because somewhere along the line, Capitalism realised that the Plastic Arts could be made into a financial instrument, something which could be sold and resold by the very rich in the same way as stocks and shares can. For works of art that are reproducible and copiable, like cinema and music, this option, of course, is not open. As a result of this, we needed to create visual art that could potentially hold any value that somebody wished to ascribe to them, in the same way that a company share price can rice or fall. For this to work, a blank, meaningless piece of art is what is necessary. If it were possible to attribute actual value to it, it would have no use as a financial instrument.
On top of this, Carey makes a special case for Literature as the best of all the arts. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of this, he does indicate, however, one thing in making this point that is worthy of mention: That visual art simply is not (and was never) capable of communicating complicated philosophical ideas. It can communicate moods, feelings, and very simplified emotions (Munchs: 'The Scream' for example) , and maybe even tell part of a story.
But it is simply not able to communicate many of the profoundly complicated philosophical wranglings that it is expected to nowadays. It is simply using the wrong tool for the job. As Elvis Costello once noted, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." - in the same way, visual art cannot be expected to express complicated ideas about the nature of reality or art: Except the by-now-tedious one of making us ask 'but is it art?' which has been comprehensively covered by now. That expressing these sorts of ideas has become it's main job, is a waste of it's talents, akin to asking David Beckham to stop dazzling us with his wonderful football skills and come inside for a chat about quantum mechanics.
As well as this, if a work of art is 'merely pretty' , what is so bad about that? For some reason, if I paint an abstract painting of blue and green circles and stick it in an art gallery it is 'art' , and is supposed in some way to express very profound meanings beyond it's mere shapes. If I stick it on a book cover, a T-shirt, or a wallpaper, it becomes 'graphic design', which is merely expected to look good. We seem to think this a lesser aspiration than 'meaning something' , but abstract art is actually infinitely more capable of the former than the latter.